It may bill itself as "the biggest adventure of all time" but let's stop kidding ourselves. Countless critics, bloggers, and filmgoers alike (this one included) were right. Behind the multi-million dollar budget, the dazzling special effects, and the marketing blitz is the not-so-thinly-veiled truth – Avatar is one of the most politically charged films in years. It touches on overt imperialism, corporate greed, religious pluralism, environmental degradation, and, most importantly, indigenous rights.
With the release of the new 9 minute longer special edition, James Cameron is tempting us once again to pick up arms and join the Na'vi in their struggles against the mechanized hordes of mankind. If you like the themes, but don't feel like adding to the nearly $3 billion take of Avatar, have heart … here are 10 of the most compelling films about real life indigenous struggles.
Avatar, and really every other film on this list, has a spiritual ancestor in the 1970 Dustin Hoffman flick Little Big Man. A darkly humorous and equally tragic film about the real life-struggles of the Cheyenne people, Little Big Man was the first critically acclaimed and commercially successful film to flip all the old stereotypes of Cowboys and Indians on their heads. Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, a young white settler adopted by the Indian elder Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George, who earned a best supporting actor nomination for this role). Little Big Man earns its spot on this list not only for challenging the stereotypical role of Indians in Hollywood but also for challenging the war in Vietnam. Written and produced at the height of the anti-war protests, Little Big Man casts the Indians (read Vietnamese) as victims while vilifying the arrogant U.S. cavalry under George Custer. What results is a film as politically charged as any.
A thriving indigenous community living in their ancestral lands. A government hell bent on harnessing their natural resources. These are the basic plot elements of both Avatar and the gripping documentary Waterbuster. Instead of the Na'vi and a small corner of Pandora, Waterbuster tells the real life drama of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Their post-war, All-American lives were abruptly swept away in 1953 with the completion of the massive Garrison Dam project on the upper Missouri River. Through archival footage and personal interviews, director Juan Carlos Peinado pieces together the emotional story of a community that resisted the government and lost. A tribal member himself, Peinado shows the dark side of progress as his interviews open up old wounds in a community still reeling from this man-made disaster. With James Cameron currently fighting a Brazilian dam project in the Amazon jungle that threatens to inundate the indigenous Achuar community, this film takes on even greater relevance.
It is awfully convenient that the fictional Na'vi of Avatar get along so well in the face of overwhelming opposition. Sure they have their moments of strife, but what culture wouldn't band together at times of enormous pressure? Enter Thunderheart, the 1992 film, directed by Michael Apted, that challenges that very notion. Val Kilmer stars as Ray Levoi, an FBI agent sent to a Sioux Indian reservation in the badlands of South Dakota to investigate a series of homicides while confronting his own native heritage. The backdrop of conflict between corrupt government officials and local Indian activists was pulled directly from real life. Apted completed a companion documentary titled Incident at Oglala about the dramatic real-life shootout between Indian activists and FBI agents in 1975 for which native activist Leonard Peltier is currently serving two life sentences. Thirty-five years on, activists around the world continue to question Peltier's guilt, using the case as a rallying cry against injustice.
Depicting one of the ugliest chapters in Australian history, Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three aboriginal girls who battled desert heat and racist politics alike in their epic 1,500 mile trek across the Australian outback. Born of aborigine and white parents, the three young "half-caste" girls are kidnapped from their mothers and sent to a government school for "re-education." Once there, the three girls (brilliantly portrayed by first time actors Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan) promptly escape and must race home avoiding desert pitfalls, an aboriginal tracker, and the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh). Rabbit-Proof Fence proved highly controversial upon its release in Australia with its charged subject matter about that nation's "Stolen Generation" of aboriginal children. A brilliant adventure story that boldly tackles the uncomfortable racial policies of the past, Rabbit-Proof Fence will both anger and uplift you with its remarkable true story.
Shot on a shoe-string budget with untrained actors by inexperienced filmmakers, The Exiles is in so many ways the anti-Avatar. Recent USC grad Kent MacKenzie envisioned a documentary film to showcase the everyday lives of the young urban Indians he had befriended in downtown Los Angeles. Shot in January 1958, The Exiles follows this group of young Native men and women over the course of one Friday night. They go bar hopping, get into fights, and dream of bigger things in the urban jungle of Los Angeles. When most Native Americans coming out of Hollywood at that time were mere celluloid savages, The Exiles is a remarkable time capsule, capturing the very essence of native struggle in the big city. Despite positive reviews from critics, the film never received commercial distribution, only to be lost and rediscovered almost half a century later.
In Avatar, Jake Sully has to overcome the suspicions of his peers to become a respected member of the Na'vi. Lucky for him he was a guy! Imagine if Jacqueline Sully had to rise up and lead the Na'vi. Good luck to her and yet that is exactly the scenario in the film Whale Rider. Twelve-year-old Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the only living heir to succeed the chief but her grandfather refuses to teach young "Pai," a girl, the traditions reserved for a first born son. She struggles against her grandfather, secretly learning the Maori ways, which only serves to upset him more. The film profiles the enduring struggle between tradition and modernity in indigenous communities around the world. Castle-Hughes makes her debut in this brilliantly acted film that features many other first time Maori actors. Whale Rider is that rare gem of a film that blends emotional intensity and honest reflection to create cinematic gold.
The darling of the film festival circuit, Smoke Signals burst onto the Indie film scene captivating audiences with its bittersweet tale of love, anger, and reconciliation. Based on the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals immediately broke new ground in the annals of indigenous cinema. The struggle for authentic native voices that began with The Exiles found its strongest yet with native director Chris Eyre. The film follows Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) as they travel from their Idaho reservation to Phoenix, Arizona to settle the affairs of Victor's recently deceased father Arnold (Gary Farmer). Dealing with alcoholism, domestic violence, racism, poverty, and questions of identity, Smoke Signals does not shy away from the very real struggles of indigenous communities. The film tackles these issues effortlessly while never straying too far from the humorous and heartwarming tale of friendship that makes the entire piece work.
Indigenous rights, colonial geopolitics, and the quest for souls crash violently together in the suffocating jungles of South America in the epic film The Mission. The story follows Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who enlists former slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) for his return journey above the falls to minister to the native Guarani community. Caught between the political ambitions of Portugal and Spain, the missionaries find themselves alone defending the indigenous community from the colonial forces carving up their world. In the end, the question becomes not will they resist but how. With stunning cinematography, haunting music, and brilliant performances from De Niro, Irons, and scores of native actors, The Mission delivers on all levels. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it is a masterpiece of cinema that is as powerful as it is political.
One more run. That's all Ray Eddy needs to save her house. One more run so she can feed her kids a proper meal. One more run smuggling human cargo across the the frozen St. Lawrence. Frozen River is the type of film that does not shy away from the grim realities of life on the "rez." Melissa Leo stars as Eddy, a newly single white mother who enters an uneasy partnership with Mohawk smuggler Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), ferrying illegal immigrants from Canada onto the U.S. side of a Mohawk reservation. The film combines gritty realism with top-notch acting to show how two women struggle to make ends meet in the face of utter economic desperation. Director Courtney Hunt refuses to take political sides, instead allowing the characters and their actions of necessity to speak for themselves. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2008, Frozen River provides that rare glance into the grim poverty and bitter struggles of many in Native America.
Although based on an original screenplay, you would be forgiven for thinking Avatar was adapted from the absolutely stunning and eerily similar Canadian documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Relatively unknown in the United States, the Oka Crisis started as a land dispute between the small town of Oka, Quebec and the neighboring Mohawk Kanehsatake Indian community. They fought over not some "unobtanium" but the expansion of a nine-hole golf course onto traditional Mohawk land. All the critical elements are here: the heartless bureaucrat steadfast on taking the land, the mechanized army whose lumbering vehicles dwarf their quaint surroundings, and the ramshackle native warriors ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Directed by Native American filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, Kanehsatake showcases the raw emotions of this bitter struggle. Where Avatar relies on bold action sequences and impressive digital effects, Kanehsatake uses grainy videotape of unadulterated rage and restraint to pull us right into the struggle. Few films have succeeded so brilliantly.